Citizen science

An empirical investigation of the public’s contribution to the advancement of knowledge

Participatory knowledge production modes that allow the integration of perspectives and forms of knowledge can help better understand our complex socio-environmental systems (Alvarado et al., 2020).

Several studies have shown that society can meaningfully engage in discussions about science and technology, and that this win-win interaction can contribute to strengthening democracies and decision-making (Reen et al., 2003; Marzuki, 2015). The current global challenges, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, demand thoughtful responses and solutions that cannot be managed with a scientific approach alone. As a result, public participation and societal engagement initiatives through so called ‘quintipule helix’ have gained wider political, institutional and public attention increasingly broad. These actions have been focal points of the Framework Programmes in the European Commission (FP7 Science in Society and Horizon 2020 SwafS programmes). In the Canadian framework, Canada’s Citizen Science Portal of the Government or the different initiatives in Universities (e.g. University of Guelph, Université Laval, Simon Fraser University, University of Waterloo) or organizations such as Community-based research Canadian organization or the Institute for Knowledge Mobilization are examples of this interest.

The term citizen science (hereafter CS) is related to the general public engagement in the scientific knowledge production in which the citizens participate in different ways (e.g. intellectual, knowledge, tools or resources). The main aim is to co-create a new scientific culture and exchange of understanding (Silverstown, 2009) able to improve upon the interaction between science and society. CS is a rapidly expanding field in open science and open innovation (Hecker et al., 2018), which is linked with the democratization of science, scientific literacy, social capital, citizen inclusion in local issues, and benefits to government. The origin of the term can be traced to Irwin who defined it as a ‘form of science developed and enacted by citizens themselves’ (Irwin, 1995). Later, many other definitions arise (see Haklay 2013; Kullenberg & Kasperowski, 2016). A more recent definition stated that is ‘general public engagement in scientific research activities where citizens actively contribute to science either with their intellectual effort, or surrounding knowledge, or their tools and resource’ (European Commission, 2013).

In terms of implementation of those methodologies, Living Labs are spaces where collaborative projects applying citizen science methodologies can take place. This concept was firstly introduced by Prof. Mitchell of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Schuurman et al., 2011) and refers to user-centred, open innovation ecosystems based on co-creation approaches, integrating research and innovation processes in real life communities and settings (European Network of Living Labs ENoLL, 2021). At the universities, they can connect education, research, and innovation with local issues through the design of specific activities that require the involvement of citizens. In the Canadian framework, there are different initiatives at the universities such as Concordia University .

One of the main unknowns with CS initiatives’ (and by extension, in the Living Labs) is the level and nature of the citizens’ involvement in the research process with a wide variety of methodologies (e.g., action research, community-based participatory research). The tasks in which the citizens can be involved are diverse and can range from data collection and tagging images to participation in the planning and design. For measuring this contribution, different participation scales have been proposed. The eight levels of Arnstein’s (1969) ‘ladder of citizen participation’ was the first and goes from ‘non-participation’ to ‘citizen power’. More recently, Haklay (2013) classified it into four levels, showing an evolution from data collectors to the full involvement of volunteers. It implies also a fundamental shift from top-down approaches to bottom-up where volunteers and scientists interact. From a bibliometric perspective, some studies analyzed the CS research output (Kullenberg & Kasperowski, 2016; Bautista-Puig et al., 2019; Pelacho et al., 2020) but to the best of our knowledge, none analyzed the level of participation of the citizens within the research.

Research questions and overall objectives

Despite ongoing research on the topic, there remain gaps in our understanding of the nature and extent of the citizens’ contributions to CS projects and the contribution of those projects to the advancement of knowledge. This project aims to gain a better understanding of the nature and outcomes of CS projects and also to test a real case study with the Living Lab by answering the following research questions:

  1. How are CS projects distributed across fields?
  2. What is the nature and degree of citizen involvement in these CS projects?
  3. What kind of knowledge is produced from these projects and how does it relate to non-CS research in the same discipline?
  4. Could a living lab structure identify and solve societal issues?
Nuria Bautista Puig
Nuria Bautista Puig
Institute for the Evaluation of Science and University (INAECU) of University Carlos III of Madrid

I am a researcher at the Institute for the Evaluation of Science and University (INAECU) of University Carlos III of Madrid. My background is in Geography and I hold an MSc in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and a PhD in Library and Information Science at the University Carlos III of Madrid.